One morning my Dad, Gary Mack, woke me up and told me we were going to Grandma’s.  At first I didn’t know what the hell was going on because my Mom was always the one who woke me up, not Dad.

He wouldn’t tell me so I crawled out of the bed wearing my PJ top and these little Wonder Woman underoos I was wearing.  It was the kind of underwear that came in a pack of three with Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman.  I liked the Batman underoos the best, but since it was the end of the week here I was with only the Wonder Woman underoos to wear.

“Wonder Woman sucks,” I thought, but I didn’t say anything.

My Dad and I, we tried to get on the pants, but every time I tried to put my foot through—one of the legs got twisted, or if I got my foot in, it wouldn’t go all the way in, or just when I was getting both legs in, I’d almost fall over trying to stand up.  As we were doing this I thought, “This isn’t how Mom does it.”

I didn’t say anything because all of the sudden Gary Mack started crying.

I’d never seen him cry before.

It was one of those big booming cries.

The night before my Mom sat down on the couch with my Dad and she started crying too.  I sat beside the couch playing with my wrestlers and noticed there wasn’t anything going on in her face.

She was leaning lost against my father’s leg and I thought, “He never sits with her like this.  What’s going on?”

He was touching her head and rubbing his fingers through her curly hair.  He couldn’t rub right.  He rubbed like he was washing his truck.

Then he whispered, “It’s going to be all right.  It’s going to be all right.”

The next morning after getting up and putting on my clothes, and getting Mom ready to go and standing at the door, my father kept repeating to us, “It’s going to be all right.  We’re going over to Grandma’s house.”

My mother stood at the door wearing her baby blue winter jacket.

She started crying, except she was still trying to smile and show me that nothing was wrong.  She was smiling and crying at the same time like her face couldn’t decide whether to cry or smile.  I knew that this was the story of our world.

I thought inside my head, “This woman’s crazy.  I can’t wait to tell my friends.”

Then I said, “I know it’s going to be okay.”

My Dad said, “We’re going to Grandma’s.  And it’s going to be all right. Lets get in the truck.”

We went over to Ruby’s across the Loops Road in Dad’s truck with two feet of snow on the ground.  We went over to Grandma Ruby’s, who I called Ruby, not Grandma, and who didn’t know my name until I was ten.  She always called me Todd and really only talked to me after Sunday dinner when she said, “You didn’t eat much Todd.”

I said, “My name’s not Todd.”

We went over to Grandma Ruby’s and when we got there Ruby took me into a bedroom where she slept.  It was a big comfy bed with a red bed spread that smelled like mothballs.  It was a room full of picture frames and pictures she cut out of newspaper advertisements.  She didn’t know the people in the ads, but she thought they were pretty people.

She put me in that bed and tucked me in and said, “Now you go back to sleep now Todd.  You go back to sleep.”

I tried too.  I closed my eyes and tried, but after a while I realized something was wrong.  I tried moving my legs but they wouldn’t move.  I tried bending my arms but they wouldn’t bend.  I was flat on my stomach and listened to my mother crying in the other room.  When I think about it, I can still feel myself trying to move my legs.  I can see the boy trying.

Later that day, I heard them talking.  I was sprawled in the bed unable to move, and I heard my Grandma talking to my mother who was in the back bedroom.

My Mother said something in a high pitched voice, “I’m so scared.”

And Ruby said, “You just hush now and go to sleep.  You just hush now and get your mind right.”

And then my Mom said, “I’m afraid of airplanes.  I’m afraid of airplanes falling out of the sky.”

My Grandma said, “You quit talking that foolishness.  There’s not any of them flying things going to fall out of the sky.  You just hush now.”

I listened, “What am I going to do?”

I tried to move in the bed some more, but I couldn’t move.  I wondered if I was ever going to be able to get up.  I wondered if my life would be like this forever—a life full of Wonder Woman Underoos.  I saw myself at the age of 40 wearing Wonder Woman Underoos.

The next day Mom and Dad were getting ready to go someplace.  Before they left, my Mother sat at the kitchen table.  Ruby stood at the sink washing dishes, bragging about how many preserves she put up, or how many potatoes she was going to plant this year.  Then my Mother and Daddy were gone and I was left alone with Ruby for a couple of hours. I watched the clock.  I sat and played checkers with my Uncle Nathan who had cerebral palsy.  Another hour passed.  I went back into my Grandma’s bedroom and I looked at the pictures of people in their coffins she took at the funeral home.  I asked her, “Why do you have all of these pictures of people in their coffins?”

She said, “I wouldn’t ever get a picture of my kin folk all dressed up and with their teeth in if I didn’t take one at the funeral home.”

So I asked again, “Where did Mom and Dad go?’

“They went to take your Mom to the doctor,” Ruby said.

I looked at the picture and then I heard a car pull up.

A door shut.  I looked out the window.  I saw Mom and Dad getting out of the truck.

I watched them walk up the gravel path and my Mother had a little bag of orange pill bottles.  She looked better.  She looked something.

I saw she was carrying another bag.  It was a bag from the store.  They brought me back something too.

“I don’t think you have those do you?” my Dad asked.

I shook my head no.  It was two little WWF wrestlers you could put on your thumbs and wrestle.  Hulk Hogan and Big John Studd.

I sat on the floor and ripped open the package.  I put them on my thumbs and I had a wrestling match.  I took my Big John Studd thumb wrestler and my Hulk Hogan thumb wrestler and let the bell ring.  Ding!  Then I had my Hulk Hogan jump off the side of the recliner and punch Studd in the face.  Big John Studd put Hulk Hogan in a headlock.  I thought, “Maybe this depression stuff isn’t so bad.”  Then Hulk Hogan pulled out the match by getting out of the head lock, jumping off the top rope, and knocked Studd out with a flying elbow.  The imaginary referee came over and slapped the canvas…1…2…3.  Hulk Hogan wings.

I heard my Dad talking to my Mom.

“Now you remember to take these now.”

“I think I was just exhausted Gary.  I couldn’t sleep.”

And so I sat and wrestled with my thumb wrestlers and thought yeah, this depression stuff isn’t too bad, especially if I could get some presents out of it. I dreamed about other bad things that could happen to her and whether I could get presents out of it.  I dreamed about wars and car crashes and presents.

I dreamed about insane asylums and presents.

I dreamed about heart attacks and diseases and presents.

I dreamed about rushing water and hellfire and lightning and presents.  And now I dreamed about something else now.  I dreamed about cancer.  I dreamed about cancer and even greater presents. Then I found myself saying, “Please let her get cancer lord and people will give me presents.”

Mary the Cleaning Lady

I used to stay with this woman named Mary when I was a little boy.  We used to go around Rainelle cleaning houses for people.  It was just after my Mom had gone back to work, and she used to carry me into Mary’s house before the sun came up.  I’d be about half asleep and wrapped in a blanket, and since it was still dark outside she put me on Mary’s couch.  Then after she left I would watch cartoons on the television and then fall back to sleep dreaming a cartoon dream where I was a cartoon too.  And then one day I woke up and it was time to go cleaning.

I remember one morning Mary said, “Whelp you ready to help me gather up all my cleaning stuff and get going?”

I helped her gather it all up and put it beside the door just like she always did.  “And if you’re real good today and you don’t get afraid then maybe we’ll stop by the bus station and get you an ice cream cone.”

She smiled and then she said, “I promise it’ll go by fast today.”   Mary was always right.   I knew Mary was someone who could control time.

Since she was offering me an ice cream cone to eat, I knew what today was.

It was Wednesday.

Wednesday was the day I dreaded because that’s the day we cleaned the monster’s house. Now on most days we cleaned nice people’s houses—like on Monday we cleaned the house of the little old lady with the shriveled up arm who always tried stuffing my pockets full of whatnots and Hershey kisses.

On Tuesdays and Fridays we went into Middletown and the welfare apartments and cleaned the house of a woman who had a goiter.  I used to dream about popping it with a pin, and wondering if it would deflate like a balloon.   The woman with the goiter always smiled at me.

But every other Wednesday we were always cleaning the monster’s house, and Mary always bought me ice cream afterwards.

Even now I was dreading it.  Even with the ice cream cone thrown in, even with Mary promising me she would speed up time so it wouldn’t take that long.  We took off that morning walking through the back alleys of Rainelle, past old shacks built when they were working for Meadow River Lumber company back in the 1930’s  And I carried Mary’s bucket and mop and held her hand and Mary carried all of her cleaning things with her other hand.

And then she told me about Rainelle.

She told me about how it used to be called Slabtown, and how the new town was built overtop of the old town.  She told me if you only dug deep enough there was a whole other town that no one knew about, and was covered up by us all.

She said they even found an old wagon when they built a house 20 years back—houses, streets, covered by these streets, covered by Rainelle.

We walked a bit more.

I imagined this other lumber town covered by Rainelle.  I imagined people still living in that town like it was a 100 years earlier and nothing had happened.  (I imagined even animals walking upright and living like people live in pants and shirts and walking with walking sticks.  It was just like in the cartoons).

Mary said,  “Now when we get there you can just sit on the porch and play with your cars, but if you get scared and he starts carrying on and trying to fight—you just go outside.  You don’t have to stay, alright.”

So I shook my head because I knew what kind of monster it was and I had a whole pocketful of matchbox cars to keep me busy.

I was just wanting to zip and zap and race and crash and bash them all together.

I wouldn’t even have to think about the monster if I was playing hard enough.

So I held Mary’s hand.  We turned the corner around the alley and there it was.

It was the monster’s house.  It was all gray looking and falling down.  The paint was chipping off from where it hadn’t been painted in a couple of years.  There was an old rusty truck in the front yard with weeds growing up around it.

So we clomped up onto the screened in front porch and Mary knocked.

No one answered.

She put her head inside and knocked again.

No one answered.

She put her head in more and shouted,  “I’m here.  It’s Mary.  I’m here to clean for you.”  She was real careful saying this, even though they took the monster’s pistol away a couple of months before.

“I’m here to clean up your toilets and sweep your floor.”

And then it was quiet.

And then we heard it.

It was a groan groaning grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr like a giant rumbling stomach.

We went inside and I kneeled down on the shut in porch and started playing with my toys.

I imagined the monster’s face and the monster’s claws.  I imagined the monster’s smell and the monster’s teeth.   I imagined the monster eating me, consuming my flesh.

Mary walked into the big room and started talking and getting ready to clean the bathroom with her bucket and her mop.

I sat and took my cars and jumped my cars on the cracked linoleum of the fenced in porch.

I took one of the hot rods and ran it over the crack in the floor.

Then I jumped it—bam.

I took another one and jumped it too.  I let them crash into one another—playing death—bam.  But after only five minutes of this, I was so bored I couldn’t take it anymore.  I got up and sat in this old dry rotten chair for awhile and then I got up and walked around the porch.

But then I had an idea.

I wanted to see the monster for myself.  I was tired of imagining what he looked like.

After weeks of coming here I’d never seen the monster’s face.

So I tip toed over to where the door was.

And then I looked inside.

I stopped and breathed deep.

Then I looked again.

But now I could see.

It wasn’t a monster.  It wasn’t a monster at all.

It was just an old man.

He was in a medical bed.

He was all propped up and he had diapers on and a ratty looking t-shirt.  He was sitting up.  His skull looked like a skeleton skull.  He was so skinny he looked like he had a second spine running down the length of his skull.  His mouth was open, black and wide and greenish looking and he didn’t have any teeth in and he was touching his arm and ripping at his chest, whining “Worms.  Worms.”

Above him was a clock and it was ticking tick tock tick tock.

I saw him and he saw me.

I was scared.

So he started shouting dirty words at me like, “Ah shit. You little fucking shit.”

Then Mary was back in the room, trying to calm him down.  “Now you quit talking filthy like that.”

He just kept on.  “O god.  O god. WORMS.  O fucking worms.”

So Mary turned towards me and said, “Scott why don’t you go ahead and go outside.  We’ll be done in a just a minute.”

But I couldn’t move.

I was so scared.  I stood watching him.

Mary bent over him, whispering, “SHhhhh. SHhhhhh.”

He moaned, “O god. Fuck.  Kill me you bitch.”

And then Mary told me to leave again.

I slowly started backing up and listened to the old man moaning, “Fuck.  Fuck.”

So Mary looked at me like she meant it this time.


So I went outside.  I gathered up all of my cars and I went and sat down on the broken concrete steps.

I listened to his moaning and I listened to him groaning, “O god.  O god.”

And then I heard Mary running the sweeper.

And then the sweeper wasn’t sweeping anymore.

And then I heard a whisper, “O god kill me.  O god let me fucking die you bitch.”

And then I heard Mary saying, “Now daddy you quit talking filthy like that.  You just quiet down.”

And then he was quiet.

I thought to myself—Daddy?


Mary cleaned for what would have been about 10 or 15 minutes, but since she told me earlier it would only be a minute, it really only felt like a minute.  The minute was up and she came outside.  She was smiling.  She handed me her bucket and we started walking and holding hands.

She said like nothing had even happened, “Well I guess we need to get this boy an ice cream cone.  He did such a good job today.  I told you the time would fly by.”  And then I grinned and Mary grew quiet.

We walked for a long time in silence.

Mary said, “I’m sorry you had to see that.  I’m real sorry.”

I said, “Mary is that man really your daddy?”

Mary shook her head “yes.”

I asked, “Well why was he saying all of those bad things?”

We just kept walking and then Mary said, “O he won’t be long for this world now.  His mind’s just gone and eaten up.  And the funny thing is he would be so ashamed of himself if he knew he was saying those things.  He’d be so ashamed.”

So I asked, “Was he a good man Mary?”

Then she chuckled again and then she grew quiet again.  “Of course he was a good man.  He was my daddy.”

We walked to the Terminal Drug where the Greyhound bus used to stop in Rainelle.  Mary ordered two small vanilla cones for us.  We went outside and sat on the sidewalk beneath the old rusty bus sign.  Ride Greyhound—rates available from anywhere in the continental U.S.

But there wouldn’t be any of that today.  There would only be two of us licking our ice cream cones and knowing there were good things in this world too.

It was hard to believe, but there were.